Advice Upon Entry into Life as a Lawyer – Convocation Address

Chief Justice Warren K. Winkler
Queen’s University, Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws – Faculty of Law
Kingston, Ontario

Friday, June 14, 2013

When young, aspiring lawyers first hear the axiom “law is a helping profession,” they may tend to assume, uncritically, that the privilege afforded by a life in the law is that for the rest of their working lives they will have the opportunity to resolve problems and assist others, for a fee, sometimes even a very handsome fee.

Most of you will want to practice law, and enjoy a fruitful satisfying career. Most or all of you also understand that law is, at bottom, a problem-solving enterprise. You need look to no other aspect of the profession to understand why it provides the practitioner with so much satisfaction and joy. Nothing feels better than knowing that you are helping someone to meet and overcome a crisis, obstacle, or burden.

But there is something else about the practice of law that you also need to know, right from the start. If you’re on the right path, — And why wouldn’t you be? You’ve gotten this far, in a University and Faculty with an impeccable reputation for excellence — much of the help that you will eventually offer to others you will give without looking for or expecting anything in return.

My humble message to you, in other words, is that success in law, real success, ought never to be measured by the amount of money it allows you to earn. If that is your only or even your primary goal, then I assure you that your life in the law will not come anywhere close to fulfilling the promise it holds for you today. Instead, it will become, in slow time, perhaps without you even noticing, an arid, empty experience; a daily drudgery, a job merely, devoid of all meaning and purpose.

And I would add this. If you see law only or primarily as a business, focusing on profit and on the bottom-line, then you will almost certainly miss out on another of the really rich rewards the profession holds out to each of you: the innumerable benefits that will flow to you from the assistance others will freely give to you. I know this as surely as day follows night.

So that is my simple but heart-felt advice to you. Beyond that, I also want to say to each of you, and to your family members and other loved ones who have joined you today: congratulations on achieving this most important milestone in your life. To have gotten this far in your studies, to have earned a degree in a challenging program, each of you and your supportive families have had to make many sacrifices. Today is one of joy and celebration. Today is proof that all those sacrifices have been worthwhile.

Today is as special an occasion for me as it is for you. I thank the University for inviting me back and for bestowing this special honour and distinction upon me. For whatever reason, Queen’s and I have enjoyed a long, close association, starting when I was asked to be the Guest Speaker for the Don Wood Lecture. Then, to my absolute surprise and delight, the University saw fit to make me the Honourary Chair of the Centre for Law in the Contemporary Workplace and to name the Speaker Series in Industrial Relations after me. And it gets even better. Now Queen’s has announced that Winkler Fellowships in association with the Centre will be established in my name.

I shall never, ever, be able to repay this university community for the generosity it has extended to me over many years. I am grateful beyond all measure. I look forward to many more years of working together. I love being here. It’s like coming home.

Today, however, is about you. Today is one of those life-altering moments for each of you because it constitutes a new beginning and bestows on you a status and a stature that will define you forever after. In a very short while, you will also be called to the Bar, and then you will become a lawyer for as long as you live. Whether you practice in the field, or work in business, or government or the academy, you will always be a lawyer, even when at long last you retire. With privilege, of course, comes responsibility. You cannot have one without the other. And to get back to my original theme for a moment, one such responsibility you will always bear is to help others who need your assistance, and you will discharge this obligation, at least sometimes and perhaps often, without expecting anything in return, other than the pure pleasure such acts will bring to you.

It was almost fifty years ago that I sat in a position similar to yours. I entered the profession after taking my Master of Laws Degree at a ceremony just like this one. It occurred to me then that what I had to offer was time to spare, as well as a specialized knowledge in labour law. I assisted busy lawyers, free of charge, by writing papers, preparing speeches or researching obscure legal issues.

I expected to receive nothing in return for these efforts. The work itself was its own reward. But as I have been trying to suggest to you, in the fullness of time benefits inevitably follow selfless acts carried out with no expectation of monetary compensation. Though in many instances the benefits came along only years or even decades later, they never ceased to surprise me. And they almost never had anything to do with money. Mostly, they involved the forging of lifelong relationships, friendships, intimacies. These are worth more than gold. When you have a helping spirit, it is simply inevitable that people will help you.

In my long life, I have been witness to the simple but profound truth that people like to help other people, whether or not money is involved. Mind you, I made money too. Lawyers work hard, study long hours, and have every right to expect to be paid fairly for their professional services. Before my appointment to the Bench, I was regarded as the rainmaker in my boutique law firm. I assure you that I know the monetary benefits available to you in the profession. But if they are the only thing you seek, then I guarantee you that there will forever be an itching, irritable sense of unfulfillment in your professional life. Don’t allow that to happen. Don’t sell your soul for thirty pieces of silver.

When you graduate today, you will join an elite cadre of future societal leaders of our country. You will be seen, willy-nilly, as human change agents. Your neighbours will start to view you differently. That’s what happens to leaders. And leaders usually possess a number of core attributes: they are decisive, competent, confident and ambitious. People like this, like you, sometimes find it difficult to receive or accept help from others. There is a reason why we hear people say that “Pride goeth before the fall”.

Pride can be damaging if it causes us to reject assistance, especially when, in the usual case, the assistance is offered generously and unconditionally, and for the purest of motives. How many times have you said “I can do this myself” when declining an offer of help? Remember, it is just as important to receive help graciously as it is to give it with grace.

Law can be lonely and even at times fearful, especially early in your career. You will have to make decisions that you feel ill-equipped to handle. Fear can lead to paralysis, so you must fight through it. And the best way – take my word for this – is not to go it alone. Don’t even try to because it isn’t necessary. The profession is full of wise colleagues who will be prepared to help you through these difficult situations, if only you have the courage and the good sense to ask them.

You will need a mentor, even if only to reaffirm the conclusion you have reached on your own. So, one of the first things I advise you to do starting now, well before your call to the Bar, is to identify a mentor. In fact, find more than one mentor. Start looking right now. One or more of them may even be in this very room. If you ask your mentors for help, they will be flattered more than you know and they will give the help gladly.

In time, you too will become a mentor to others. My experience has been that a mentor gets as much out of the experience as the person being mentored. I still have mentors in my present job, as I continue to mentor others. This process is never-ending, and it is part of what makes law the noblest profession in the world.

If, after consulting your mentors, you still can’t decide the right thing to do in a tough situation, then here’s what I suggest: seek out one of your grandparents, or one of your parents or grandchildren. (When I was a lawyer, when all else failed, I sometimes turned to one or the other of my labs. They didn’t always give me the answers I was seeking, but they listened and were, and still are, a constant source of consolation.) If you can’t get in touch with any of these reliable sources, and have only yourself to fall back upon, then do what your conscience tells you to do. If someone — a client, a friend or an acquaintance — asks you to do something that doesn’t feel right, and they will, don’t do it.

Mentoring and being mentored fosters loyalty. And, as you know, there is no price tag for loyalty. Loyalty is also always rewarded. One morning long ago when I was in practice, the first piece of mail I opened was a letter from a valued and valuable client terminating our relationship of several decades. The reason given was a faulty opinion by an associate lawyer. I called a senior executive at the client’s head office in the U.S. to tell about this bad news from the Canadian company. He rescinded the direction immediately, stating that years of loyalty are not cast aside in this fashion, even if the opinion was wrong. Loyalty begets loyalty.

When you are a lawyer, people depend on you and take your word for things. Clients, opposing lawyers, government officials and judges accept what you say at face value. When your time comes to put what you have been taught into practice, do not disparage or destroy this trust. Don’t exaggerate; don’t misstate facts, even trivial ones; and don’t mislead or take advantage of others. Don’t even think about it.

Treat others with respect. I mean all others; not merely those in higher positions, but also peers and subordinates. Treat them all alike. Whether they are rich or poor, healthy or disabled, in the majority or the minority, treat them all alike – with dignity and respect. When you do, they will respect you in return, and in that moment you will know what it truly means to be a lawyer.

I suppose that ultimately what I’m saying is that all of us have a responsibility to give back to the profession. It isn’t hard to do. There are so many choices available to us: join a legal organization of your choice; accept a position in an organization; speak when asked to do so. These are the kinds of activities that keep the profession alive.

You will spend a great deal of time with clients. You can’t talk about law all the time. Clients like to feel that you are grounded, that you have common sense and sound judgement. That is the main reason they consult you. Lots of people know the law. Not many have common sense and sound judgement. My further advice is to read, listen to music, find and pursue hobbies, stay fit, eat properly, and watch your appearance. Don’t become reclusive and hermetic. Don’t shrink the world to the size of your office. Get out in the world. Take an interest in politics and business and the affairs of your community. Law respects those who have a life. Clients do too. They will think you are human and value your advice. And yes, get a dog, preferably a Labrador Retriever. Better yet, get two. (Cats are optional.)

Finally, be aware every day, from this day forward, of the privilege that will soon be afforded to you. Dignify the profession. Treat it with honour and respect and it will honour and dignify you in return. Success cannot help but follow.

My advice to you today is not found in any lexicon of the law. It may not be taught in a compulsory law school or Bar course. It certainly wasn’t taught when I was a student. For me, it is nothing other than the product of more than fifty years of experience with the law, interacting with good lawyers and bad, with honourable judges and wise colleagues. I hope these thoughts will benefit you.

There will be many good times for you as you go forward with your career. There will also be trying times, times of worry and despair. There will be times when you feel discouraged and think that you cannot continue on. But be courageous. Go forward boldly. Trust your mentors, and yourself.

When I was just beginning on my journey in the law I had times when I felt disconsolate. I felt as though I were a failure. Failure is more than hurtful; it saps the spirit. But out of it, something good almost inevitably arises. One day, after sharing one such bump in the road with my mother shortly into my law career, my grandmother sent me a little poem she had cut from a book. I carry it in my wallet to this day, soiled and faded though it now is. I take it out and read it occasionally, when I need encouragement and direction. I will end my remarks by sharing the poem with you in the hope that someday its words will comfort you, as they have so often comforted me.

Who never wept knows laughter but a gest;
Who never failed, no victory has sought;
Who never suffered, never lived his best;
Who never doubted, never really thought;
Who never feared, real courage has not shown;
Who never faltered, lacks a real intent;
Whose soul was never troubled has not known
The sweetness and the peace of real content.1

Congratulations again on having reached this milestone achievement. Best wishes to you and your loving families, and may your life in the law be all that you want it to be.

  1. Brainard, E.M., reproduced in Alexander, A.L., Poems That Touch the Heart (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956) at  p. 292.
This website is maintained by the Judges' Library. Website Policies